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The “Brightest” Subway Station – 49th Street

Do you ever notice something aesthetically unusual in New York and wonder about its history? Thousands of commuters pass through the bright orange, open, columnless 49th Street subway station at 7th avenue every day and likely notice – it looks nothing like NYC’s other stations! How did this happen?

In the 1970s, the MTA was expanding and funding the enhancement of existing stations that needed an upgrade. The architectural trends at the time were about clean lines, bold colors, and unobstructed spaces and when architect Philip Johnson was commissioned to spearhead the $2.5 million renovation of the 49th Street subway station, he had “cheer” in mind. This is the theater district, and the subway, he thought, was ready for some zest and color.

The 49th Street station previously looked similar to most others in New York City – white tiling with dark blue and brown mosaic detailing around the street sign. Columns throughout the platform, cement floors, benches with armrests and posts beneath them. This sleek, modern orange brick in an open, boxy space was a bold choice in October 1973, and the first of its kind.

Philip Johnson had already accomplished a lot in his field by the time he designed this station. The Koch Theater at Lincoln Center and the Seagram Building are both Johnson’s work–a bright orange underground subway platform was an obvious departure from his usual style, and a unique opportunity to contribute to the NYC cityscape in a new way. Johnson added terrazzo flooring, soundproofing in the station’s ceiling, and benches that seem to float above ground. He laid the red bricks over the existing tiles, which actually decreased the size of the subway platform by several inches.

Since its renovation in October 1973, a few accessibility changes have been made, changing the appearance slightly but it is still Philip Johnson’s visionary station. The Bowling Green station has also since been designed in the same style – 49th Street and Bowling Green are the only places you’ll find this unique orange brick on the NYC subway. If you were tasked with redesigning a public transit stop in your home city, where would you start?

Most visual aspects of New York City are the product of decisions, collaborations, plans, and intentions for the city that we seldom hear or see. What strikes us enough to research/pursue the full story? What do we miss when we are not curious about our environment?